Gerry Day Credit

Her father played the organ to accompany the silent The Phantom of the Opera at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.  She watched Howard Hughes filming miniature dogfights for Hell’s Angels in a lot behind her house.  The “big sister” who showed her around campus when she started at Hollywood High was Lana Turner.  Orson Welles hypnotized her in his magic act at the Hollywood Canteen.  Gerry Day, native daughter of Los Angeles, child of Hollywood, and a fan who parlayed her love of the movies into a career as a radio and television writer, died on February 13 at the age of 91.

A 1944 UCLA graduate, Day got her start as a newspaper reporter, filing obits and reviewing plays for the Hollywood Citizen News.  A radio writing class led to spec scripts, and Day quickly became swamped with assignments for local Los Angeles programs: The First Nighter; Skippy Hollywood Theater; Theater of Famous Players.  The transition to television was natural, and Day became a regular contributor to the half-hour anthologies that tried, anemically, to ape the exciting dramatic work being done live in New York.  Frank Wisbar, the expatriate German director, taught her how to write teleplays for his Fireside Theater, and then Day moved over to Ford Theater at Screen Gems, working for producer Irving Starr.

A gap in her credits during the late fifties reflects a year knocking around Europe, drifting among movie folk.  Back in the States, Gerry’s mother was watching television, writing to her daughter that she’d like these new horse operas that had sprung up: Rawhide, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train.  Ruthy Day meant that her daughter would enjoy watching them, but of course Gerry ended up writing them instead.

A city critter who loved horses and yearned to be a rancher, Day was fated to collide with television’s glut of Westerns.  In 1959 she connected with Howard Christie, the genial producer of Wagon Train, who gave her a lot of leeway to write what she wanted (and used her to doctor other scripts beyond the seven or so she’s credited on).  Her other key relationship was with Richard Irving, producer of the comedic Western Laredo.  Day loved doing the oaters: the light-hearted romp Here Come the Brides; The High Chaparral, with its Tucson location; Tate; Temple Houston; The Virginian; Big Valley; The Outcasts; finally, fittingly, Little House on the Prairie.

Although she specialized in Westerns, Day wrote in all genres, and notched credits on some respectable dramas: Medical Center; My Friend Tony; Judd For the DefensePeyton Place was not a particularly agreeable experience, nor was Marcus Welby (puckishly, she took a male pseudonym, “Jon Gerald,” for her episode); but Dr. Kildare and Court Martial were treasured memories.  It was for Court Martial, a forgotten military drama, that she wrote her favorite script, a euthanasia story called “Judge Them Gently.”

As for the name: It wasn’t that her parents wanted a boy.  It’s that there were venerated Southern family names to be preserved, and so the little girl became Gerald Lallande Day.  It fit the tomboy she grew into, even though there were draft notices from the Marines and invitations to join the Playboy Club that had to be gently declined.

Gerry lived with her parents for most of her adult life, in an old bungalow in the heart of Hollywood that – apart from the traffic blasting past the tiny lawn on busy Fairfax Avenue – hadn’t changed much since her father bought it in 1937.  Gerry already had cancer when I looked her up there in 2007, although it was in remission and she was feeling peppy.  When I first dropped by, Gerry was wearing a pair of white slacks that Dan Dailey had picked out for her – Dan Dailey, the song-and-dance man who died in 1978.

The reason Dan Dailey had been Gerry’s personal dresser back in the day was that for a time Gerry wrote with a partner, the actress Bethel Leslie, who was Dailey’s romantic companion toward the end of his life.  Day was good at writing for women, and managed on a few shows to write parts for her favorite actresses – Barbara Stanwyck, Vera Miles, and Bethel, who starred in an African Queen knockoff that Day wrote for her on Wagon Train.  Day found out that Leslie was working on a memoir, and thought she had talent.  They began writing together, on shows like Bracken’s World, Matt Helm, the new Dr. Kildare and the new Perry Mason, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, Barnaby Jones.  On her trips out from New York, Leslie lived in Gerry’s studio.  They would split up the work: Gerry wrote in the mornings, Bethel in the afternoons, then they meshed the work together.  For two years, they were staff writers together on the daytime soap The Secret Storm.  “For our sins,” said Day, who detested the executive producer so much that she wouldn’t utter his name.

Day’s love for horses led her to the track.  She was an unofficial bookie for the Wagon Train clan, and eventually a part owner of a racehorse, which led her into a variety of adventures that would’ve made great subplots on David Milch’s racetrack opus Luck.  A devout Catholic, Day became a Eucharistic minister in her church; she also raised foster children and supported equestrian causes.  And remained ever under the spell of the movies.  “The other night,” she told me during my first visit, “I stayed up late to watch Rio Grande.  Talk about your romance, between John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.  That was a really good film . . . .”

“I’m not a gun!” snarls Vint Bonner at one point in the episode “Cheyenne Express.” 

I guess he forgot the name of his own show. 

The Restless Gun is another one of those fifties westerns that centers a gunslinger who’s not really a gunslinger.  Gunslingers were supposed to be the bad guys and, four and a half decades before Deadwood, a bad guy couldn’t be the protagonist of a TV show.  Have Gun – Will Travel and Wanted: Dead or Alive, with their fractured titles, were the important entries in this peculiar subgenre, the ones that maintained a measure of ambiguity about how heroic their heroes were.  If you’ve never heard of The Restless Gun . . . well, it’s not because it doesn’t have a colon or an em-dash in the title.

The Restless Gun bobs to the top of the screener pile now because of the reactions to the obit for producer David Dortort that I tossed off last week.  Several readers posted comments seconding my indifference toward Bonanza but suggesting that Dortort’s second creation, The High Chaparral, might be worth a look.  I didn’t have any High Chaparrals handy, but I did have Timeless Media’s twenty-three episode volume of The Restless Gun, which Dortort produced during the two TV seasons that immediately preceded Bonanza.

The Restless Gun marked Dortort’s transition from promising screenwriter to cagey TV mogul, but I suspect Dortort was basically . . . wait for it . . . a hired gun.  He didn’t create show, he didn’t produce the pilot, and he contributed original scripts infrequently.  The Restless Gun probably owes its mediocrity more to MCA, the company that “packaged” the series and produced it through its television arm Revue Productions, than to Dortort. 

The pedigree of The Restless Gun is convoluted.  It originated as a pilot broadcast on Schlitz Playhouse, produced by Revue staffer Richard Lewis and written by N. B. Stone, Jr. (teleplay) and Les Crutchfield (story).  When The Restless Gun went to series, Stone and Crutchfield’s names were nowhere to be seen, but the end titles contained a prominent credit that read “Based on characters created by Frank Burt.”  Burt’s name had gone unmentioned on the pilot.  The redoubtable Boyd Magers reveals the missing piece: that The Restless Gun was actually based on a short-lived radio series called The Six Shooter, which starred James Stewart.  In the pilot, the hero retained his name from radio, Britt Ponset, but in the series he became Vint Bonner.  I don’t know exactly what happened between the pilot and the series, but I’ll bet that Burt wasn’t at all happy about seeing his name left off the former, and that some serious legal wrangling ensued. 

You’ll also note that Burt still didn’t end up with a pure “Created by” credit.  Well into the sixties, after Revue had become Universal Television, MCA worked energetically to deprive pilot writers of creator credits and the royalties that came with them.

The star of The Restless Gun was John Payne, whose deal with MCA made him one of the first TV stars to snag a vanity executive producer credit.  Critics often tag Payne as a second-tier Dick Powell – both were song-and-dance men turned film noir heroes – but even in his noir phase Powell never had the anger and self-contempt that Payne could pull out of himself.  Payne was more like a second-tier Sterling Hayden – which is not a bad thing to be.  But while Payne is watchable in The Restless Gun, he’s rarely inspired. 

If Payne looks mildly sedated as he wanders through The Restless Gun, it could be the scripts that put him in that state.  The writing relies on familiar, calculated clichés that pander to the audience.  “Thicker Than Water,” by Kenneth Gamet, guest stars Claude Akins as a card sharp whose catchphrase is, “If you’re looking for sympathy, it’s in the dictionary.”  I’ll cut any script that gives Claude Akins the chance to say that line (twice!) a lot of slack.  But then Akins turns out to be the absentee dad of a ten year-old boy who thinks his father is dead and . . . well, you can probably fill in the rest. 

Another episode, “Man and Boy,” has Bonner trying to convince a sheriff that a wanted killer is actually the lawman’s son.  Payne and Emile Meyer, playing the sheriff, step through these well-trod paces with a modest amount of conviction – and then the ending pulls a ridiculous cop-out.  Dortort, he of the Cartwright dynasty, may have had a fixation on father-son relationships, but he certainly wasn’t interested in the Freudian psychology that could have given them some dramatic shading.

Dortort’s own teleplay for “The Lady and the Gun” is unusual in that it places Bonner in no physical jeopardy at all.  It’s too slight to be of lasting interest, but “The Lady and the Gun,” wherein Bonner gets his heart broken by a woman (Mala Powers) who has no use for marriage, has a tricky ending and some dexterous dialogue.  The low stakes and the surfeit of gunplay look ahead to Bonanza, but I’m not sure how much of the script is Dortort’s.  On certain episodes, including this one, Frank Burt’s credit expands to “Based on a story and characters created by.”  I’m guessing that means those episodes were rewrites of old radio scripts that Burt (who was a major contributor to Dragnet, and a good writer) penned for The Six Shooter.  So what to do?  It’s hard to draw a bead on Dortort as a writer because didn’t write very much, and when he did, he usually shared credit with someone else.  Maybe that’s a verdict in itself.

There is one pretty good episode of The Restless Gun that illustrates how adventurous and complex the show could have been, had Dortort wanted it that way.  It’s called “Cheyenne Express,” and I’m convinced its virtues are entirely attributable to the writer, Christopher Knopf.  But Knopf, and his impressive body of work, are a subject I plan to tackle another time and in another format.  So for now I’ll leave you to discover “Cheyenne Express” (yes, it’s in the DVD set) on your own.

Last week, the character actor Jason Wingreen discussed his role as a founder of New York’s legendary off-Broadway theater, the Circle in the Square; his early film and live television roles; and his appearances on Playhouse 90, The Twilight Zone, and Wanted: Dead or Alive.  As our interview continues, Wingreen recalls his work from the sixties onward.

What are some of the other TV parts you remember?  You had recurring roles on a number of series.

I played in The Untouchables.  I played Captain Dorset of the Chicago Police and I did seven episodes.  What I remember mainly, and this is not entirely true but it seemed to be for the bulk of these seven shows, there’s a murder, and Captain Dorset arrives to investigate and look around for clues, and along comes Eliot Ness and his boys, and we greet each other and I say, “Well, Eliot, this looks like a case for you and your boys!”  And with that, off I go.

Then there was The Rounders, with Chill Wills.  I played the town drunk in about six episodes of that.  I grew up next to a saloon, and I’ve had my fill of drunks.  Then there was 12 O’Clock High, of which I did four episodes as Major Rosen, the weather officer.  I was the one who’d tell the general, played by a very good actor [Robert Lansing], that we couldn’t fly, but at eight A.M. tomorrow morning I believe we will be able to get our planes in the air. 

Then there was The Long Hot Summer.  I played Dr. Clark, the family doctor.  This was based on the feature movie, which was done with Orson Welles playing the lead.  Ed O’Brien played it on the TV series for a while.  I did nine episodes, and the funny part was, when I got my first script, I looked at my role, and my character’s name was Dr. Arrod Clark.  That seemed strange to me, because my dog’s vet was Arrod Clark.  So I went to Frank Glicksman, who was the producer of the series, and I said, “Frank, my name here, guess what, that’s the name of my vet!”  And Frank says, “I know, I know.  The author of this script promised his vet that he was going to get his name on the show.”

There were a few episodes of that that are worth mentioning.  One had to deal with the mother of the children of the family, who had split with the old man years ago and gone off elsewhere, but was not part of the series until this episode.  They got Uta Hagen to play the role of the mother.  A big star, big name.  We’re in rehearsal, we’re going to shoot this particular scene of her arrival that afternoon – the introduction by the old man of her to the children.  I was not in the scene, but I was certainly there to see this.  I wanted to watch Uta Hagen working. 

They start the rehearsal.  Uta Hagen enters, and the father says, “Children, this is your mother.”  And a young actor named Paul Geary says, and this was not in the script, “Mother . . . Mother . . . .”  Goes up to Uta Hagen, puts his hands on her throat, and starts choking her.  He had to be dragged off by the grips!  He flipped out.  They dragged him off and stopped shooting.  They got this guy off somewhere, they sent him home.  He never acted again.  They had to redo it again with somebody else, I guess, but I wasn’t there.  This was an actor who was high on something.  They told me he was a young surfer, and wanted to be an actor, and became one.  But he was on something, and “Mother, mother” is what hit him, and he went right at her. 

And the funny thing about it was that when one of the producers who was on the set at the time came up to Uta Hagen to apologize for what had happened, she said, “Oh, that’s nothing.  Happens to me all the time!”

The other thing about The Long Hot Summer was Eddie O’Brien, who played the role [of the patriarch] to start with, for the first seven or eight episodes.  I was talking to him one day on the set.  We shot it at MGM.  There was a lot of stuff left over from old movies, and we were right near the entrance to the Grand Hotel from the movie Grand Hotel.  So we were standing out there in the sun, just chatting, and Eddie was not happy.  Not happy at all.  He said to me, “They made me a lot of promises.  I was going to be very big on the series.  They made me promises, and it’s not working out.  They’re giving all the stuff to the kids.  The kids are getting all the episodes.” 

I said, “Well, that’s what it is.  What can you do?” 

He said, “I don’t know.  I don’t know, but I’m not happy.” 

Anyway, one afternoon, we were shooting a scene.  A man named Marc Daniels was directing.  A family scene, sitting around a table, with Eddie O’Brien.  They had to work on the lights before they could start to shoot.  Marc Daniels says, “Let’s run the lines a little bit while we’re waiting.” 

So they started, and Eddie O’Brien is mumbling, just mumbling the lines.  Marc Daniels says, “Come on, Eddie, let’s make a scene out of this, you know?  We’re rehearsing.” 

Eddie says, “Oh, well, forget it.  Let’s take a break.  We’ll come back.” 

O’Brien gets up and he walks to his trailer, which was right there on the set, climbs into his trailer and closes the door.  We’re just hanging around, we’re waiting, we’re waiting.  Then it’s, “We’re ready, let’s shoot the scene now.”  So Daniels says to the second assistant, “Will you get Mr. O’Brien please?  Tell him we’re ready.” 

The guy starts over towards O’Brien’s trailer.  The door opens.  O’Brien walks out.  He’s wearing his overcoat.  Turns around, turns to the left, and walks to the stage door and walks out.  Right in the middle of a rehearsal.  That was his exit from the show!  They tried to get him at home that night.  He was married to Olga San Juan.  She answered the phone, supposedly:  “Eddie doesn’t want to talk to anybody.”  He just plain quit. 

We had to stop shooting, and I got called up several weeks later.  They said they’re going to reshoot it, so I came back and they did it.  Dan O’Herlihy was playing the father now.  That’s how it is in the show business.  He played it until it went off the air.

Then there were series on which you appeared many times, but never in the same role.

I did six episodes of The Fugitive, playing different characters each time.  I did six Ironsides, and I did three Kojaks, directed by my friend Charlie Dubin.  We met in college in 1938, and I just attended his ninety-first birthday party.  I did three Bonanzas, different roles, two of them on a horse.  A horse and I are not very friendly.  I’m not a good man on a horse.

So westerns were not your favorite genre in which to work?

Westerns on a horse were not my favorite shows.  Westerns off a horse were okay.  I could play storekeepers and things like that in a western.  Or a hanger-out at the saloon.  I could play that very nicely.  That was okay.

On series like those, would you get called back repeatedly because a casting director knew you and liked your work?

Exactly.  The part would come up.  They knew by this time, I had the reputation of being able to play different characters with different accents, different situations.  I’m not blowing my own horn, but I was a talented actor.  And easygoing.  Very easy to work with.  I gave nobody any trouble at all.  I did what I was told, or asked to do, with a smile and a shoeshine.  To quote Willy Loman.

I’d be called in for one day’s work, in one scene, and have no idea of what came before or after.  And it didn’t interest me, particularly.  I just concentrated on the character, and on the particular situation that that character was involved with.  Small or large, or whatever it was.  A line or two, or a speech or seven.

Would directors give you much attention, or leave you alone to do your thing?

They practically left me on my own.  They knew who they had, the quality of my work and of my reputation, I suppose.

It’s hard to know what to ask you about all those roles where you only had a few lines.

Oh, I loved ’em.  I loved being there.  I enjoyed it all.  I don’t mind two or three lines in just an ordinary television show.  I liked to be on the set.

How would you approach a really small part, where your function was basically to deliver a piece of exposition?

I’d play the character.  I’d play the character, always.  I’m not worried about the plot.  Plot means nothing to me in a play, because I’m not concerned with the plot, I’m concerned with the character.  The character and situation will give me the clue as to how to play the part.  And also, am I playing a Noo Yawk guy, you know, and I’ve got to do the accent?  Or am I playing a doctor, or a professor perhaps?  Or am I playing [he does the accent] a Russian?  I played a Russian on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.  With Ed Asner – Ed Asner and I and another actor, we’re Khrushchev and two of his associates, we’ve escaped from a firing squad.  It wasn’t Khrushchev, but it was [based on him].  Ed Asner played the head of the Politburo, but he’s being overthrown by other members and his associates.  And we end up in a riceboat.  I used to kid around about us: Three Jews in a boat.  And I died in the arms of Richard Basehart.  [In a thick accent:] “Admiral, admiral!” 

That’s not bad.  Were you good at accents?

I was good at that one!  Yeah, I could do an Englishman if I worked at it.  Or I could play an Irishman, y’know.  In Howard Beach, I lived next door to an Irish saloon.  I played ball with the Irish and the Italian kids.  I was the token Jew on the team.  They liked me because I could play a good second base.

Did you have a good agent, who kept you working so much?  You must have kept him (or her) busy.

I think I’ve probably buried all my agents, I mean literally, through the years.  One was a very short young man, and he was living with an actor who played the role of Mr. Lucky on a series, John Vivyan.  The second agent was a man named Leon Lantz.  Leon Lantz, who was originally, I believe, from Hungary or Romania, was brought over to this country by Rudolf Schildkraut, the famous European actor who was the father of Joseph Schildkraut, the actor that became a very successful character actor here in Hollywood.  Leon was recommended to me by someone.  I went to meet him and he spoke with a very thick accent, and had a strange vocabulary.  He said to me, “My name is Leon O. Lantz.  ‘O’ for honest.”  And he never got my name right.

What did he call you?

He called me “Greenspring.”  It almost cost me a job once.  My wife and I were living in a kind of an English castle up in the Valley, an apartment where you had to enter by walking up a staircase on the outside to get into the apartment.  We had a dog, and my wife was out walking the dog.  She must have been at least a good block away when the phone rang, and it was a former agent of mine.  This lady called and said, “Dick Stockton at Fox called us.  He thought you were still with us.  He’s got a job for you in a TV show.” 

I thanked her very much for the tip and I called Leon right away.  I hear him call Fox on his other phone and he says, “Let me talk to Stockton.”  He gets Stockton and he says, “Stockton, this is Lantz.  Listen, I understand you’re looking for Greenspring.”  I heard that and I started screaming into the phone.  I said, “Leon, it’s Wingreen!  It’s Wingreen!”  And I hear him saying, “Greenspring, Greenspring.”  Later my wife said she was a half a mile away and she heard me screaming. 

Anyway, finally I got through to him and he made the deal.  It was for a TV show.  I went up to his office and I said, “For chrissake, when are you going to get my name right?”  He says, “What are you complaining, you got the job, didn’t you?” 

You also did some writing for television in the early sixties.

I’d always wanted to write, of course.  I wanted to be a sportswriter.  There was a time there when the acting tapered off.  Just a short period, but I felt I had something in me that would help me when the times are bad for acting.  So I rented a room in the Writers and Artists Building on Little Santa Monica.  It was a small building, and underneath it was the restaurant called the Players, which had been owned at one time by Preston Sturges.  Upstairs were these rooms and a couple of studios for artists.  Jack Nicholson had a room there.  That was way back before Jack Nicholson became the Jack Nicholson.  Dan Petrie and his wife had an office there, and Mann Rubin, a lovely writer.  And I set myself up there in this little office to write.

I had an idea for a thriller piece, and there was a series at Universal at the time called Thriller.  Boris Karloff was the narrator who introduced each one of them.  I had an idea for one of those, and I wrote out a synopsis for the whole thing, with some suggested lines of dialogue.  And then I called a man at Universal that I had worked for as an actor, Doug Benton.  He said, “Well, leave it with me.” 

And I said, “Can I read it to you?”  I didn’t want to leave it with him.  I said, “I want to read it to you,” because I thought I could pep up some of those lines of dialogue, you know.  Anyway, I read the whole right thing through to him.  He was not the number one producer, he was the associate producer, and he said, “Well, leave it with me, and I’ll show it to Bill Frye, and I’ll get back to you.” 

So the next day I had an appointment at my dentist’s.  I’m in the dentist’s chair and the dentist’s nurse comes in and says, “There’s a telephone call for Mr. Wingreen.”  So they bring the phone to me, and it was Doug Benton.  He said, “Well, the father should be the first to know.  We’re going to do it, and Bill said you’ll write the first draft.”  So, the first draft became the last draft, because I wrote it and they shot it.  And another writer was born. 

John Newland directed it.  John Newland was an actor I knew in New York in the early days.  He knocked around quite a bit in New York playing very tiny roles.  In fact, he was almost like an extra.  He came out to Hollywood and became a very successful director, and had a show of his own, actually, One Step Beyond.  He hired me once to do an acting job on one of those.  Anyway, he was the director of this episode of Thriller, and I asked if I could attend.  He said, “Yeah.  We’ll run though it, we’ll rehease it, and then we’ll shoot it.” 

Actually, what I wanted to do was get a part in it as well, but the man who was actually producing it [William Frye] said, “No, we’ve got somebody else lined up.”  So I sat through their reading, and they started getting ready to shoot and John Newland said, “Well, now the writer has to leave.” 

I said, “I have to leave?” 

He said, “Oh, yes.  We don’t want the writers to hang around and tell us to change a line or rewrite something.  So you have to go now.”  So that was the closest I came to seeing that in actuality until it came on the air.

I did a couple of things with other writers.  I wrote an episode of The Wild Wild West, in partnership.  The title of the episode was “The Night of the Torture Chamber,” and I wrote it with Phil Saltzman, who also had a room up in the Writers and Artists Building.  Phil Saltzman became a pretty successful producer.  Then I wrote, with another writer [Neil Nephew], who was married to Ellen Burstyn at the time, the Greatest Show on Earth episode called “The Last of the Strongmen.”  The producer of that was Bob Rafelson.  Then I wrote, on my own, 77 Sunset Strip and The Gallant Men at Warner Bros. 

Did you like writing as much as acting?

For 77 Sunset Strip, I got the assignment and the deadline to get the first draft was in a week.  At the very same time, I get an acting job on a Bonanza.  On a horse.  On location.  I got up at six o’clock in the morning.  I drove up.  On these shows, they don’t pick you up, you get there.  I had to drive up to Chatsworth for a seven o’clock call, to get on a horse.  I do the day’s work, get back, grab a bite, out to my office, to the typewriter.  For a week, both places.  When I was finished with those, I was ready for a sanitarium.  That was the toughest eight days I think I ever spent in my life. 

The question was, which did I like better?  At that time, I didn’t like either one of them!  But acting was, for me, much easier.  Writing did not come naturally.  I wanted it to, but it didn’t.  The words didn’t fall out out of me, and the ideas didn’t pour out of me, either.  I struggled to get the ideas and the words.  The acting, at least the words were there for me and I could do anything with them.  Didn’t have to change them, didn’t have to rewrite them, didn’t have to worry about them being accepted or not.

Do you remember appearing in The Name of the Game in 1970, in an episode directed by Steven Spielberg?

Yes.  I got the appointment at the producer’s office and met Spielberg there.  I went there, and there’s this high school kid.  I swear!  I thought he was, like, seventeen years old.  We talked a bit, and he said, okay, fine, we’ll let you know.  And I did get the job.  I think I played a professor who was kidnapped or captured in some way by bad guys.  Spielberg directed it, and I had very little contact with him at all.  No conversation.  Little did I know what and who he’d become!

You also worked on Star Trek around the same time.

That was an episode called “The Empath.”  That was just a job, that’s all.  I knew John Erman, the director, well.  I had worked for John on a western.  I had to fall off a horse for John Erman!

Tell me how you came to play Harry the bartender during seven seasons of All in the Family and then Archie Bunker’s Place.

Paul Bogart was directing All in the Family, and the very last episode of the sixth season had a scene where Edith and Archie had an argument because he wasn’t taking her out any more, and she was going out on her own that night.  So where does she go?  She goes to Kelcy’s, and the story doesn’t work if she’s recognized by Kelcy.  So the actor who was playing Kelcy gets the week off, and they need somebody else.  And Paul was instrumental in recommending me for that role.  It was just a one-shot.  That’s all it was supposed to be, just that one episode.  So I did it.  And it was a good part, too.  There was some good stuff to do in that particular episode, I assume I did it very well, because after the hiatus my agent called and said, “They want you back.” 

I went back, and then I discovered that I was going to be playing that part from then on.  So what happened to Kelcy?  In fact, the actor who was playing Kelcy, his agent kept calling that first season, saying, “When is Bob going to be back on the show?”  And unfortunately, no one in authority there had the guts to tell him that Bob’s not coming back on the show.  And that’s show business.

Do you have any idea why they decided to make the change and bring you back?

Yes.  I think Paul told me this, because Paul was involved in the eventual hiring of me again.  I think, in that conversation about it with Carroll and Norman Lear, Carroll said, “I’m so tired of Bob’s lousy jokes.”  And that was that.  Apparently Bob [Hastings] was a joker at work, always coming up with jokes.  And Carroll O’Connor says, “I’m tired of his lousy jokes.”  And that cost the man a career, and gave me another one.

So the All in the Family role was important in your career?

Tremendous.  In my career and my life, it was seven years.  With increasing money each season.  It allowed me to retire, let me put it that way.

Did you enjoy the show, and the role?

How could I not like it?  I loved it.  It was wonderful.  We worked from Tuesday on to the rest of the week.  Monday, you had [off], to go to the bank and the laundry.  We’d arrive on Tuesday morning, we’d sit around, read the script.  We’d start laughing in the morning and laugh until five o’clock, when we’d quit.  I mean, how could you not like it?  I’m not sure Paul loved it that much, because he had to direct.  The responsibility was on him.  But just as an actor in the proceedings, I had a wonderful time.  With Al Melvin, and Bill Quinn, the old-timer who played the blind man. 

You shared many scenes with those two, who played regular customers in Harry’s bar.  Tell me what you remember about them.

Bill told me a couple of good stories during the time when we were together.  Bill was a child actor, originally.  He had worked with George M. Cohan when he was a child, and he was directed, as a young man, by Jed Harris in a play.  Jed Harris was the man that had five shows on Broadway at one time.  Apparently he was pretty tough, though.  They were in rehearsal of the play, and there was a young ingenue, who was in the movie Stagecoach.  Louise Platt.  At one point during the rehearsal, Louise Platt was puzzled by a move or a line or something, and she said, “Jed – ”  And Jed Harris said, “It’s Jed in bed.  It’s Mr. Harris here.”  They were later married.

So that’s one story.  Another story: Bill Quinn’s daughter, Ginny, married Bob Newhart.  It was a huge Hollywood wedding, in a Catholic church in Los Angeles.  It was packed with top Hollywood names, big names.  During the big moment when Bill Quinn leads his daughter down the aisle to give her away in marriage to Bob Newhart, as they passed a certain part of the house on their way down, there was an outburst of laughter from someone in the audience.  Which certainly was not the customary thing to happen at this solemn occasion. 

So after the wedding was over, there was a big reception.  Everybody milling around.  Bill Quinn’s there, and a friend of his, Joe Flynn, comes dashing up and says, “Oh, Billy, I’m so sorry.  That was me who did that!  I couldn’t help myself.” 

Bill Quinn says, “What the hell!  What happened?” 

Joe Flynn says, “Well, I’ll tell ya.  When you and Ginny started down the aisle and got past the row where we were sitting, this guy next to me said, ‘Look who they got for the father!’”  That’s a wonderful line, isn’t it?  That’s a Hollywood line.  You’d have to be an actor to appreciate that.

I have to ask, was Allan Melvin the same in real life as he was on screen?  I mean, his sort of dense Brooklyn mug persona?

He was more intelligent than that.  Allan wrote little poems, little couplets of sorts, and they were very funny.  Like limericks, but not quite limericks.  Some of them were very intelligent and very, very funny.  Never published.

Allan and I became very close friends.  Allan and his wife and my wife and I would go to dinners and parties together, and we traveled together a couple of times.  But Allan also was, and I hate to say this, somewhat bigoted as well.  Racially.  Based on what, I don’t know.  His upbringing, maybe.  We used to avoid those conversations, but it crept out here and there.  I would say that’s probably one of his unfortunate failings.  But we didn’t dwell on that.

What kind of relationship did you have with Carroll O’Connor?

A very, very close, warm relationship.  And I’m sure he was preeminent in agreeing to keep me on the show.  To get me on the show and stay on the show for all those years, and to have some good scripts written for me, too.

Were there episodes of All in the Family that revolved around your character?

Yes, there were a couple that did.  When I was alone at the bar one night, and a young woman comes in, and she’s going to be meeting a man who never shows up.  And it turns out that we go off together.  And in a later scene, we come down in a bathrobe and pajamas.  At least, I do.  So there was that one, but mainly, of course, I was background.

I’ll tell you where I got my name.  I was Harry from the beginning, but in one script, one of the writers said, “This is something where we need a second name for you.  Have you got one that we could use?”  Well, when I did that Broadway show, playing a soldier in Fragile Fox, I was named Snowden.  And I thought, well, that guy, a typical New York guy, Snowden, after the war would go back to New York and become a bartender.  So I said to the writer, “Yeah, Harry Snowden.”  And then Carroll could make jokes with it.  Call me Snowball.  Or Snowshoes: “Hey, Snowshoes, get over here.”  One of his typical malapropisms.

I was Harry Snowden, Harry the bartender, for seven years.  My son, who is now a full professor at Princeton, was very funny about that.  Many shows I was there with very little to say, and my son once said, when he found out what kind of money I was making: “You can make all that just for saying, ‘But, Arch . . .?’”

Later in the eighties, you appeared frequently on Matlock as a judge.

Actually, like Paul Bogart got me into All in the Family, Charlie Dubin was the one who got me into Matlock.  He recommended me to the producer for the first one.  It was a good one, it had some good stuff in it.  Then I did eleven episodes, playing Judge Arthur Beaumont.  Whenever they needed a judge that said more than “Overruled” or “Sustained,” when they had a judge who had some dialogue to deal with with Andy Griffith or anyone else, they called on me.  They called me their number one judge.  And then Andy took the show down to his home in North Carolina, and I was not asked to go down there.  If they needed judges, they got them down there.

What was Andy Griffith like?

Well, you know how I told you that Al Melvin was somewhat bigoted?  Andy Griffith was greatly bigoted.

Really?

Really.  I was present when Andy Griffith was told that there was a scene they were going to do which was originally written out of the script of that episode, [featuring] Matlock’s right-hand man, who was played by a very good young black actor whose name escapes me.  And Andy Griffith was given the information by one of the producer’s assistants there that the scene was going to be not eliminated, it was going to be redone, reshot, and some lines would be given back to the black actor.  Griffith, very loud, not caring who was on the set at the time – they had visitors of all sorts when they were shooting – said, in a good loud voice, “Oh, sure.  Okay.  Go ahead, go ahead.  Give it to the nigger.  It’s okay.  Give it to the nigger.”  Does that tell you something?

That’s disappointing.  I’m a big fan of Griffith’s work.

Well, it had nothing to do with his work.  Do you know what I say?  Do not confuse the actor with the role.  I played Hitler once!

[It should be noted that Andy Griffith publicly supported Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election. – Ed.]

I can’t close without asking about Star Wars, and the role it has played in your life.

Well, I was sent by my voice agent for a reading for Yoda [in The Empire Strikes Back].  They gave me the lines and I had to improvise an accent and a delivery of the lines, and I did, to the best of my ability.  Of course, I didn’t get the job; Frank Oz got the job.  But, as I learned later, they were very impressed with my reading, and there were these four lines of dialogue for Boba Fett.  And as a reward to me, they offered me the role.  They didn’t know Boba Fett was going to become an icon.

Then I went to record it, on a stage in Hollywood, on one afternoon in 1980.  I met Gary Kurtz, the line producer, and Irvin Kershner, the director of The Empire Strikes Back.  They showed me the scenes where the lines would be delivered, where Jeremy Bullock walked and spoke.  I didn’t have to lip synch because he had a mask on.  You could say them any time, and I fit them in.  I watched it, I got a feeling of what the character was, and then we shot the stuff.  I did the four lines a couple of times.  Kershner came out of the control room once, made one suggestion, and I did it.  And that was the day’s work.  I think the actual work, aside from the hellos and goodbyes and all that, could have been no more than ten minutes.

Now, after saying goodbye, I’m leaving.  Gary Kurtz was with me, walking me out.  Well, sitting in the dark, in the back, in a room right near the exit, is George Lucas, whom I had not met when I came in.  So Gary Kurtz introduces me to Mr. Lucas, and I said to him, “I don’t believe we’ve ever met.” 

He didn’t get up; he remained seated.  And he said to me the words that I still don’t know what he meant.  He said, “No, but I know Boba Fett.”  That was it.  And then I left.

Now, I’m not imitating the sound of his voice, or even the delivery, because it wasn’t anything that I could pinpoint.  It wasn’t like, “I know Boba Fett, and you’re not it.”  Or, “I know Boba Fett, and you did a terrific job with it.”  It wasn’t that at all.  It was just, “No, but I know Boba Fett.”  To this day, I don’t know what he meant.

But I do know it’s my voice on there, and I got paid.  Apparently Lucas has me replaced in this latest thing that he did, in the director’s cut.  Because of the continuity or something.  It doesn’t mean anything to me.  I don’t give a damn about what he does with the role, or doesn’t do with the role.  But the thing about it is, the thing that really bothered me and everybody else who has been involved with him in these productions, is that there are no residuals.  This was done on an English contract, and at that time English studios were not paying residuals.  And as far as ancillary rights, Lucas tied them all up in your contract.  So my voice has been used in action figures, and I have a little helmet that my son and daughter-in-law bought me on eBay and gave me as a birthday present, where if you press a little button my voice says, “Put Captain Solo in the cargo hold.”  That’s my voice, and I don’t get a single penny for that.  So I have no love for George Lucas.

And you also didn’t receive screen credit on The Empire Strikes Back.

No screen credit, right.  So how did it come that people suddenly discovered who I was?  My sister’s grandson was in a chatroom on the internet, and he happened to mention to some friends of his that his grandmother’s brother did the voice of Boba Fett.  The word got around, because then I got a phone call from the editor of the [Star Wars] Insider magazine.  He said, “Is it true that you did the voice of Boba Fett?”  I said, “Yes, I did.  That’s my voice up there.  I have the contract, too.” 

He said, “Can I check with the Lucas people, and then I’d like to have an interview with you for the magazine.”  He did, and that’s what did it.  That would have been in the year 2000.  That’s what started the whole thing that’s given me this cottage industry that I’ve got here.

So these days, do you get an avalanche of Boba Fett fan mail?

An avalanche, and it doesn’t stop.  Almost every day brings something.  The other day, I signed a photo of Boba Fett for a little girl in Poland.  It gives me something to do with my life.  Otherwise I wouldn’t do very much, except existing.

Long-running television shows are like the proverbial elephant: they feel very different depending on where (or when, in case of a TV series) you touch one.  A few, like Bonanza or C.S.I., have gone for a decade or so without changing much, but those are the exceptions.  Most of the time, there are significant changes along the way in a show’s cast, producers, writers, premise, setting, tone, or budget, and these inevitably affect its quality.

I always think of Rawhide, a popular western which ran on CBS from 1959 to 1965, as the most extreme example of this phenomenon.  On the surface, one episode of Rawhide looks more or less like any other.  It began as the story of a cattle drive, and remained true to that concept for most of its eight seasons (actually, six and two half-seasons, since it began as a midyear replacement and closed as a midyear cancellation).  The stars were Eric Fleming as the trail boss and Clint Eastwood, a sidekick who almost but not quite achieved co-lead status, as his ramrod.  A few secondary cowboys came and went, but the only major cast change occurred in the last year, when Fleming was replaced by a worn-looking John Ireland.

Behind the scenes, though, the creative turnover was significant, and the types of stories that comprised Rawhide changed with each new regime.  A thumbnail production history is in order.

The creator of Rawhide was Charles Marquis Warren, a writer and director of B movie westerns who had played a significant role in transitioning the radio hit Gunsmoke to television in 1955.  Warren stayed with Rawhide for its first three years (longer than he had remained on Gunsmoke, or would last on his next big TV hit, The Virginian).  For the fourth season, CBS elevated Rawhide’s story editor, Hungarian-born screenwriter Endre Bohem, to the producer’s chair.  Vincent M. Fennelly, a journeyman who had produced Trackdown and Stagecoach West, took over for the fifth and sixth seasons.  During the seventh year, the team of Bruce Geller and Bernard L. Kowalski succeeded Fennelly, only to be fired in December and replaced by a returning Endre Bohem.  A final team, comprising executive producer Ben Brady and producer Robert E. Thompson, couldn’t save Rawhide from cancellation halfway through its eighth season.

Most Rawhide fans will tell you that the early seasons are the best.  I can guess why they think that, but I believe they’re wrong.  Warren’s version of Rawhide played it safe, telling traditional western stories with predictable resolutions.  The writers were second-rate, and Warren padded their  thin plots with endless shots of migrating “beeves.”  Warren was content to deploy totemic western tropes – Indian attacks, evil land barons, Confederate recidivists – in the same familiar ways that the movies had used them for decades.

During the Bohem and Fennelly years, things began to improve.  Both producers brought in talented young writers, including Charles Larson and future Star Trek producer Gene L. Coon, who contributed quirky anecdotes like “The Little Fishes” (Burgess Meredith as a dreamer transplanting a barrel of fragile Maine shad fry to the Sacramento River) and pocket-sized epics like the amazing “Incident of the Dogfaces” (James Whitmore as a malevolent but terrifyingly effective cavalry sergeant).  There were still episodes that coasted on routine genre action, but they alternated with meaty, character-driven pieces.

When Kowalski and Geller (the eventual creators of Mission: Impossible) took over Rawhide in 1964, they pulled off a daring experiment that has never been matched in the history of television.  The new producers upended Rawhide, dismantling western myths and muddying genre barriers with surgical precision and undisguised glee.  Geller and Kowalski commissioned teleplays like “Corporal Dasovik,” a Vietnam allegory which portrayed the cavalry as slovenly, dishonorable, and homicidal, and “The Meeting,” a surreal clash between the drovers and a prototypical mafia on a weirdly barren plain.  The two-part “Damon’s Road” was a rowdy shaggy-dog comedy, complete with infectious Geller-penned showtunes (“Ten Tiny Toes”) and a subplot that reduces Fleming’s square-jawedhero to buffoonery, pushing a railroad handcar across the prairie in his longjohns.

Geller and Kowalski’s Rawhide segments may be the finest television westerns ever made.  Taken as a whole, they represent a comprehensive rebuke to the myth of the Old West.  They anticipate the brutal, disillusioned revisionist western films made by Sam Peckinpah and others in the following decade.  Peckinpah’s The Westerner (1959) and Rod Serling’s The Loner (1965-1966) touch upon some of the same ideas, but they do not take them as far.  Not until Deadwood, forty years later, did television produce another western that looked, felt, and smelled like the seventh season of Rawhide.

The only problem with the Geller-Kowalski Rawhide, which the producers undoubtedly understood, was that it had little to do with the Rawhide that had come before.  Many observers just didn’t get it, including Eric Fleming, who refused to perform some of the material.   (Eastwood, apparently, got the idea, and Geller and Kowalski shifted their attention from Fleming’s character to his.)  Another non-believer was William S. Paley, the president of CBS, who was aghast at what had been done to one of his favorite programs.  Paley fired Geller, Kowalski, and their story editor Del Reisman midseason in what they termed “the Christmas Eve Massacre.”  Paley uttered one of television history’s most infamous quotes when he ordered their replacements to “put the cows back in.”

During the final year of Rawhide, the new producers did just that.  The series attracted some talented young directors and actors, including Raymond St. Jacques as TV’s first black cowboy.  But no one took any chances in the storytelling.

*

Critics don’t have much value if they neglect to interrogate their own assumptions, question their long-held opinions.  Which explains why I’ve been slogging through the first and second season of Rawhide, screening the episodes I hadn’t seen before and looking for glimmers of life that I might have missed.  Most of the segments I watched in this go-round proved to be just as handsomely mounted, and fatally tedious, as the rest.  But one episode, “Incident of the Blue Fire,” triggered some doubts about my dismissal of Charles Marquis Warren, and led me to write this piece.

“Incident of the Blue Fire” (originally broadcast on December 11, 1959) is a little masterpiece about a cowhand named Lucky Markley, who believes he’s a jinx and whose frequent mishaps gradually convince the superstitious drovers that he’s right.  It sounds like one of those dead-end cliches that I listed in my description of the Warren era above.  But the writer, John Dunkel, and Warren, who directed, get so many details just right that “Incident of the Blue Fire” dazzled me with its authenticity, its rich atmosphere, and its moving, ironic denouement.

Dunkel’s script gives the herders a problem that is specific to their situation, rather than TV western-generic.  They’re moving across the plains during a spell of weather so humid that the constant heat lightning threatens to stampede the cattle.  The drovers swap stories about earlier stampedes, trying to separate truth from legend, to find out if any of them have actually seen one.  Eastwood’s character, Rowdy Yates, averts a stampede just before it begins, and explains to his boss how he spotted the one skittish animal.  Favor, the trail boss, replies that Rowdy should have shot the troublemaker as soon as he recognized it.  These cowboys are professional men, discussing problems and solutions in technical terms, like doctors or lawyers in a medical or legal drama.

Then Lucky appears, asking to join the drive with thirty-odd mavericks that he has rounded up.  “Those scrawny, slab-sided, no-good scrub cows?” Favor asks.  Not unkindly, he dispels Lucky’s illusions about the value of his cattle.  Lucky shrugs it off, and negotiates to tag along with Favor’s herd to the next town.  Then Favor and one of his aides debate the merits of allowing a stranger to join them.  In one brief, matter-of-fact scene, Dunkel introduces viewers to an unfamiliar way of making a living in the west and to a type of man who might undertake it.

Warren directs this unpretentious material with casual confidence.  He gets a nuanced performance from Skip Homeier, whose Lucky is proud and quick to take offense, but also smart and eager to ingratiate himself with others.  Warren’s pacing is measured, but it’s appropriate to a story of men waiting for something to happen.  Tension mounts palpably in scenes of men doing nothing more than sitting around the campfire, uttering Dunkel’s flavorful lines:

WISHBONE: Somethin’ about them clouds hangin’ low.  And the heat.  Sultry-like.  It’s depressin’, for animals and men.

COWHAND: Yep, it’s the kind of weather old Tom Farnsworth just up and took his gun, shot hisself, and nobody knowed why.

“Incident of the Blue Fire” features some unusually poetic lighting and compositions.  Much of it was shot day-for-night, outdoors, and the high-key imagery creates, visually, the quality of stillness in the air that the cattlemen remark upon throughout the show.  (The cinematographer was John M. Nickolaus, Jr., who went on to shoot The Outer Limits, alternating with Conrad Hall.)  There’s an eerie beauty to many of the images, like this simple close-up of Eric Fleming framed against the sky.

Does one terrific episode alter my take on the early Rawhide years?  No – they’re still largely a bore.  But now I can concede that Charles Marquis Warren was probably after something worthwhile, a quotidian idea of the old west as a place of routine work and minor incident.  That the series lapsed into drudgery much of the time, that the stories usually turned melodramatic at all the wrong moments, can be lain at the feet of a mediocre writing pool.  Or, perhaps, Warren capitulated too willingly to the network’s ideas of where and how action had to fit into a western.  But Rawhide had a great notion at its core, and that explains how the show could flourish into brilliance when later producers, better writers, were given enough room to make something out of it.

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